How To Combine Intrinsic And Extrinsic Motivation In Online Learning

How To Combine Intrinsic And Extrinsic Motivation In Online Learning
Summary: Everyone knows learner engagement is important, but there's more to motivation than meets the eye. Find out why it's important to link intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in online learning.

Intrinsic And Extrinsic Motivation In Online Learning: What Are The Differences?

Learning and Development professionals usually have the same mission – to help their learners gain the skills and form the habits that benefit the organization. A debate has raged for years about the best, most efficient way to deliver the training and ensure it sticks. We can all agree, however, that no delivery method can have an impact if it doesn’t engage the learner.

Whether they opt for online learning or classroom-based training, learning managers look for solutions that can secure long-term learner engagement. The trouble is that this has proven to be a very elusive goal, and many of these initiatives follow a similar trajectory: An initial, fleeting burst of interest which gradually tails off, leaving no lasting impact.

When we talk about engagement, we often make the mistake of thinking about logins and completion rates. What we should be thinking about is desire, and behavior. Do the learners enjoy the process and gain new skills because of it? Do they value the training enough to make the effort? If the answer is no, it could be that you haven’t given them the motivation they need.

2 Different Kinds Of Motivation

Motivation is the fuel that keeps your learners invested in their training. If we look a little closer at motivation, it usually falls into 1 of 2 categories: Intrinsic and extrinsic.

  1. Extrinsic Motivation.
    Extrinsic motivation involves doing something for external rewards, like money or praise. Extrinsically motivated people aren’t driven by the action or behavior itself. They focus on the outcome and what they can gain from the activity. In corporate-learning terms, the learners might not enjoy the process of learning new things, but the promise of a pay rise motivates them to continue.
  2. Intrinsic Motivation.
    Intrinsic motivation describes the drive of internal rewards, like enjoyment, a sense of accomplishment, or the need to satisfy curiosity. When we’re intrinsically motivated, we seek to complete an action because of the effect it has on us internally. It’s the genuine desire for the activity itself that keeps us going, not the prospect of a reward. When it comes to learning, intrinsic motivation tends to hold more value. That’s only natural – we’d all prefer it if our learners enjoyed the process of learning for its own sake. Unfortunately, this is much trickier to achieve. Because extrinsic motivation is less complicated, we often focus on the tangible benefits for the learners. The danger here is that this can have a negative impact on intrinsic motivation.

Extrinsic Vs. Intrinsic Motivation

In an experiment to test motivation [1], psychologist Edward Deci monitored 24 students playing a game called Soma. The students were split into 2 groups and over the course of 3 sessions, they worked to solve puzzles. In the second session, the test group was paid a dollar for each puzzle they solved, while the control group played for no monetary reward.

Deci found that, given the chance to take a break, the participants in the control group would happily continue solving puzzles for the sheer amusement of it. It was a different story for the test group, who stopped solving puzzles as soon as there was no more money to be had. The experiment seemed to show that adding an extrinsic reward actually reduced the intrinsic motivation to continue.

Extrinsic Motivation In Online Learning

In the past couple of decades, the learning community has taken the issue of learner engagement more seriously, given its undeniable benefits. This has resulted in an explosion of innovation from learning technology providers, introducing concepts like gamification.

There are several case studies proving that the addition of game mechanics (like badges, levels, and leaderboards) has a positive impact on learner engagement. However, critics say that it only creates extrinsic motivation, not intrinsic. That is, the learners complete the task simply to earn a badge, not for the satisfaction of gaining new knowledge and skills.

These critics say that this can’t sustain long-term engagement, and in a way, they’re right. Gamification can be a powerful motivator, but only when it’s used as part of a robust engagement strategy.

Linking Extrinsic And Intrinsic Motivation

When a gamification initiative fails to get results, it’s usually down to one reason: the game mechanics have been added on as an afterthought, without considering the needs of the organization and those of the learners. The extrinsic rewards of badges and points need to be linked to an intrinsic benefit.

This is where Epic Meaning comes in. You need to weave a narrative that places the learner at the center of something larger than themselves. This sense of purpose should stem directly from the vision and values of the organization. These are the core principles that prompted the learner to join the organization in the first place. As such, it’s a common ground that supports your organizational culture and should form the foundation of your entire training initiative.

Without meaning, gamification is little more than a collection of badges. Similarly, social learning features will only ever produce sporadic discussion threads, if there’s no broader plan supporting them. Injecting meaning ensures that the extrinsic and intrinsic motivation complement each other and work in harmony to sustain engagement and encourage behavior change.

For example, a learner won’t necessarily share their knowledge just because they can earn a virtual badge. If the learning platform celebrates these behaviors and emphasizes the impact that an individual’s knowledge can have on the entire organization, the learners will assume ownership of the training program.

Final Words

There are countless ways to give your learners motivation, whether intrinsic or extrinsic. In learning, it’s not enough to just inspire motivation – you need sustained motivation. The key is to find that universal goal that ties everything in your organization together. Once you have that, you’ll be too busy keeping up with your learners to wonder whether it was intrinsic or extrinsic motivation that saved the day!



  1. Self-Determined
eBook Release: Growth Engineering Learning App
Growth Engineering Learning App
Introducing Growth Engineering Learning App, the world’s most advanced mobile application for organisational learning. It places unlimited potential right where your learners need it — their pockets! 🔥